Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark & Luke

3. Why Parables?
Matt 13:10-17 // Mark 4:10-12 // Luke 8:9-10

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     analysis     source hypotheses     appendix 

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Which source hypothesis has a simpler explanation of this data?

Theory Relationship
 A   Augustine  Mark condensed Matthew; Luke drew on both
B  Griesbach  Luke edited Matthew; Mark condensed both
C  Farrer  Matthew expanded Mark; Luke drew on both
D  Two Source   Matthew & Luke independently edited Mark & Q 

Any source theory needs to be supported by redaction criticism. It must be able to account for the wide discrepancy in the logic of the various versions of this dialog as well as any parallels & omissions in content. Only a hypothesis that is consistent with each gospel's editorial tendencies at other points can be considered plausible.

A hypothesis that presupposes that Matthew is the primary source of this pericope (A & B) must be able to explain why both of the other synoptics

  • have a problematic purpose clause rather than Matthew's pedagogically accurate causal clause to explain Jesus' use of parables;
  • omit most of the rest of Matthew's version of Jesus' reply, including a biblical quotation that clarifies Jesus' perplexing words; &
  • drop a saying that in Matthew promises a bonus to Jesus' disciples, into a more ambiguous context a few lines later.

Any hypothesis that Mark is the basic source (C & D) only has to explain why Matthew & Luke both

  • do not follow Mark in separating this scene from the preceding parable &
  • agree in a few words not found in Mark.

A hypothesis that Luke used Matthew as a secondary source (C) has to explain why he preferred Mark's problematic version except for a few inconsequential details of wording. Thus, the Two Source hypothesis (D) has far fewer problems to resolve than other source theories.

Testing the Theories


Did Mark edit Matthew? 

The fact that Mark's version of this pericope is shorter than Matthew's may seem to support Augustine's claim that Mark abridged Matthew. But closer comparison undermines that initial impression. If Mark edited Matthew, he

  • replaced Matthew's brief introduction of a direct question about the purpose of parables with a longer & vaguer indirect report that introduces an unnecessary change of scene;

  • contradicted Matthew's simple explanation that Jesus used parables to instruct those who were not given knowledge, by deliberately shifting Matthew's contrast between haves & have-nots to a context after this pericope;

  • destroyed the clear logic of Matthew's explanation of Jesus' pedagogical method by substituting a conjunction that made confusion the purpose rather than the existing condition that prompted Jesus' parables;

  • eliminated the bulk of Matthew's explicit direct quotation from scripture while leaving a logically distorted paraphrase of its conclusion, thereby creating the impression that Jesus' message was designed to prevent people from repenting & being forgiven;

  • totally discarded Matthew's concluding commendation of Jesus' disciples for witnessing the realization of prophetic dreams.

If Mark's pericope is based on Matthew's, then it is not a summary but a deliberate distortion. For even the clumsiest editor would try to preserve the gist of an argument instead of introducing so many logical problems.

If Mark were a gnostic who rejected Jewish scripture & portrayed Jesus as mystagogue of a spiritual elite, who scorned the unenlightened masses, then his version of this pericope could plausibly be represented as a revision of Matthew's. But that is not an accurate characterization of the author of the canonical gospel of Mark.

On the contrary, Mark begins his gospel by citing an OT text (explicitly credited to Isaiah) that identifies John the Baptizer as Elijah & Jesus as his messianic successor. He even has Jesus recite Jewish scripture in debate with other Jews. In fact, in Mark 7:6-13 Jesus invokes Isaiah 29:13 to fault Pharisees for replacing God's written commandments with human oral tradition. So, why would Mark delete Matthew's quotation of Isaiah from the question about parables?

Moreover, it is not typical of Mark to create the impression that Jesus did not want people to repent or be forgiven. For Mark introduces Jesus' public career with this initial proclamation:

Mark 1
 15  "The time is fulfilled!
  The kingdom of God is at hand!
  and believe in the gospel."

When Jesus is faulted by Jewish scribes for telling an invalid "My son, your sins are forgiven" [Mark 2:5], he responds by asserting that "the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" [Mark 2:10]. In fact, Mark concludes a major debate between Jesus & the scribes with this sweeping generalization:

Mark 3
 28  "Truly, I say to you,
  all sins will be forgiven the sons of men
  and whatever blasphemies they utter;
29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit
  never has forgiveness."

Mark presents this dramatic declaration of general amnesty directly before the pericope on Jesus' kin. So, is it plausible that only 2 pericopes later he deliberately distorted lines in Matthew --- which did not even mention forgiveness --- to suggest that Jesus did not want any outsider to be forgiven?

If Mark had placed this explanation of Jesus' parables right before or after the pronouncement story about Jesus' true kin, then it might make sense as a revision of Matthew. For then Jesus' reference to outsiders who would not be forgiven because they refuse to see or hear would refer to Jesus' critics or to his blood relatives who thought he was mad [Mark 3:20]. Both of these stayed outside the circle of Jesus followers. But the synoptics do not represent either group among the huge crowd to whom Jesus taught "many things in parables" [Mark 4:2]. Since this pericope is focused on Jesus' rationale for telling parables, those who "hear but don't understand" must be identified as the crowds to whom the parables are addressed.

In context Matthew's version of Jesus' explanation of why he uses parables makes perfect sense. Mark's, on the other hand, does not. Since editors generally eliminate problems to clarify texts, viewing Mark's version of this pericope as a revision of the text of Matthew makes editorial nonsense.


Did Mark conflate Matthew & Luke? 

The Griesbach hypothesis avoids some of the problems of the Augustinian theory by holding Luke responsible for condensing Matthew & making Mark collator of both versions.

  • Luke's introduction of the question is short, involves no change of scene & ascribes the question to Jesus "disciples" (all like Matthew rather than Mark);
  • The beginning of Luke's version of Jesus' pronouncement is closer to Matthew's wording ["to know the secrets"(pl.)] than Mark's is.

But the advocates of this redactional theory must still explain

  • why Luke created the impression that Jesus told parables to prevent people from understanding his message, &
  • why Mark preferred Luke's problematic version of Jesus' response when he allegedly knew Matthew's version as well.

Why would Luke deliberately

  • replace a logical subordinate clause ["because..."] in Jesus' pronouncement about the purpose of parables with a problematic one ["so that..."]?
  • and delete a quotation of Isaiah's description of a dense audience?
  • and reserve 2 aphorisms Matthew links here [Matt 13:12 & 13:16-17] for use later in separate contexts?

Luke's omission of the quotation of Isaiah 6 cannot be credited either to his hesitancy to show Jesus quoting scripture or to his reservations about the text itself. For Luke begins his account of Jesus ' ministry by having Jesus read Isaiah 61 to explain his own activity; and he concludes his two volume account of Christian origins with Paul quoting the same passage from Isaiah 6 -- verbatim -- that Matthew has Jesus cite here:

Acts 28 Matt 13
 26  `You shall indeed hear   14  `You shall indeed hear 
  but never understand,   but never understand,
  and you shall indeed see    and you shall indeed see .
  but never perceive.   but never perceive
27 For this people's heart  15 For this people's heart 
  has grown dull, and   has grown dull, and
  their ears are heavy of hearing,   their ears are heavy of hearing,
  and their eyes they have closed,   and their eyes they have closed,
  lest they should perceive    lest they should perceive 
  with their eyes,   with their eyes,
  and hear with their ears,   and hear with their ears,
  and understand with their heart,   and understand with their heart,
  and turn for me to heal them.'   and turn for me to heal them.'

Luke was even less apt than Mark to invent the idea that Jesus' parables were designed to prevent people from repenting or being forgiven. For he is the only gospel writer to report parables in which a person's repentance is rewarded:

  • The Prodigal Son focuses on a mammoth celebration for a wayward son who returns home proclaiming twice: "Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son" [Luke 15:18f, 21]; AND
  • The parable of the Pharisee & the Tax Collector draws a sharp contrast between a self-righteous pious person & a sinner who can only plead: "God be merciful to me a sinner!" & concludes that the penitent was "justified" because he humbled himself [Luke 18:13f].

So, is it plausible that Luke would alter Matthew's explanation of the purpose of parables to create the impression that Jesus did not want people to be forgiven?

Griesbach's hypothesis creates more problems than it solves here. For it presupposes an editorial history of this pericope in which

  • both Luke & Mark deliberately distorted Matthew's account of Jesus' pedagogical technique to produce an impression that is incompatible with their own prevailing pictures of Jesus' teaching; AND
  • Mark ignored identical wording in Matthew & Luke to produce an account that is more obscure in both setting & saying.


Did Luke use Matthew? 

Any source theory that asserts the literary priority of Mark is able to explain the pericope explaining Jesus' use of parables better than those that presuppose the primacy of Matthew. For in both style & logic Mark's account of the question about the purpose of Jesus' parables is the most problematic. Matthew's & Luke's versions are readily explained as conservative attempts to clear up a perplexing passage in Mark. The only question is whether one editor of Mark knew & used the work of the other.

If Luke was working from both Mark & Matthew, as Farrer proposed, it is clear that he generally regarded Mark's version as more reliable, since he favored Mark's grammatical constructions & failed to adopt any of Matthew's clarifications of Jesus' reason for using parables.

  • To pose the parable question, Luke uses an indirect description (like Mark) rather a direct quotation (like Matthew).
  • Luke does not follow Matthew in citing Jesus' aphorism about haves & have-nots in this context but leaves it just where Mark quotes it: after the metaphor of the measure.
  • In Jesus' explanation of his pedagogical intentions, Luke uses a purpose clause (like Mark), not a causal clause (like Matthew), even though Mark's construction creates logical problems that Matthew's does not.
  • Luke eliminates Mark's problematic cautionary clause but does not introduce Matthew's clarifying quotation of Isaiah 6 at this point, even though he clearly knew it & used it to conclude the book of Acts.
  • Luke does not cite the non-Markan aphorism commending "those who see" at the conclusion of this pericope (as Matthew does) but presents it instead in a non-Markean context two chapters later.

So, it is clear that Luke did not copy any of the structural elements that distinguish Matthew's version of this pericope but instead preserved the basic details of Mark's version even though these are logically and theologically more difficult.

Luke's wording is closer to Matthew's version of this pericope than to Mark's in only 3 minor stylistic details:

  • Luke omits Mark's initial temporal clause that introduces an unnecessary change of scene;
  • instead of echoing Mark's "those around the 12," Luke labels Jesus' questioners simply "disciples";
  • in Jesus' reply, Luke uses an infinitive ("to know") & a plural noun form ("secrets") which are not found in the oldest mss. of Mark.

But the fact that these same details are found in Matthew is not proof that the author of the gospel of Luke was directly dependent on the text of the gospel of Matthew. The first two points are easily explained as natural changes that any editor would be inclined to introduce into Mark's opening sentence to simplify his clumsy rhetoric. From a redactional perspective, it is more significant that "disciples" is the only word in which Luke's introductory sentence resembles Matthew's. Otherwise, Luke's narrative introduction simply refines Mark's, preserving the latter's grammatical structure & vocabulary.

The third point is less easy to dismiss as a coincidence. For this pronouncement [Matt 13:11//Luke 8:10] is the only place in the gospels where the plural "secrets" [Greek: μυστήρια] occurs. In fact, the plural form of this noun is used in only two other places in the NT, both times by Paul [Rom. 2:16 & 1 Cor. 14:25] in reference to unverbalized schemes within the human heart rather than to the mysterious mechanics of the divine realm.

The phrase "secrets of the kingdom" is unique to Matthew & Luke's version of this single Jesus saying. As far as we can tell, these authors did not get it from any ms. of Mark. But that still does not mean that Luke must have gotten it from the text of Matthew. That would be the case only if one could prove

  • that the original mss. of Matthew & Luke (1st c. CE) were identical with the oldest surviving copies of this pericope (3rd c. CE); AND
  • that Matthew created the plural noun ["secrets"]; AND
  • that it existed only in written form & was never quoted orally by anyone.

Not only is it impossible to prove any of this, it is even probable that the circumstances of the development of the gospel tradition made the opposite of each of these conditions true.

  • Jesus sayings circulated orally for decades before they were written down. For more than a century, in fact, Christian authors like Thomas, Papias & Tatian preferred to quote Jesus sayings from oral memory rather than from written texts.
  • Early Christian scribes were influenced by oral tradition & frequently altered a gospel text to conform to more familiar oral formulae.
  • "Secrets" (plural) is not a typical word form in the vocabulary of Matthew or any other NT writer; so the phrase "secrets of the kingdom" was probably derived from oral Jesus tradition rather than from the mind or pen of any scribe.

The fact that the first clause in Luke's version of Jesus' explanation of his rationale for using parables is almost identical in wording with Matthew's is clear evidence that Luke knew the same version of this Jesus saying as Matthew. But the fact that Luke's narrative introduction of this saying & his version of its second clause follows Mark rather than Matthew makes it improbable that Luke got his wording of this pronouncement of Jesus from reading Matthew. It is possible, of course, that Luke had heard Matthew read sometime or had learned this saying from an oral tradition based on Matthew. But Luke's agreement with Matthew stops just when he gets to those elements of vocabulary & grammar that are most typical of Matthew's version of this pronouncement: "kingdom of Heaven" & "I speak to them in parables because...." So, it is quite clear that Luke did not use a written text of Matthew when composing his own version of this pericope.

Farrer's source hypothesis offers a simple explanation of a few similarities in the wording of Matthew's & Luke's versions of this pericope. Yet, it poses an even greater editorial puzzle: if Luke knew the gospel of Matthew, why did he ignore its correction of Mark's interpretation of the purpose of Jesus' parables? In Luke Jesus regularly presents parables to help people understand a point. So, if Luke had a choice between Matthew's & Mark's versions of this pericope, why did he copy the one that contradicts his own portrait of Jesus' practice? Is a source theory that solves simple vocabulary questions by creating such logical quandaries really a verifiable redactional hypothesis?


Are Matthew & Luke independent revisions of Mark? 

The Two Source hypothesis accounts for the history of this pericope without creating redactional problems that other hypotheses do:

  • The first written record of this passage is Mark's, the least polished & most problematic of all the synoptic versions.
  • Matthew tried to clarify a difficult Markan pericope by totally rewriting it. He sharpened Mark's description of the scene, corrected the logic of Jesus' reply by changing a subordinating conjunction ("because" for "so that"), & expanded it by adding material suggested by key words in Mark's text:
    • a contrast between those who are "given" and those who are not that Mark had put a few lines later;
    • a quotation from Isaiah that contained the same paradox as Jesus' reply in Mark: viewers "not seeing" & auditors "not hearing;"
    • a commendation of those who "see" what others did not that he got from a source other than Mark. For lack of a name for that source, let us just call it "Q."
  • Luke polished Mark's pericope without consulting the gospel of Matthew. Unlike Matthew he condensed Mark's pericope [using 36 Greek words for Mark's 49] by simplifying the narrative introduction & eliminating redundant words & Mark's problematic concluding cautionary clause. Yet Luke preserved all of Mark's logical structure of this passage & included none of Matthew's insertions. So the few non-Markan agreements between Matthew & Luke's wording of this pericope are better attributed to coincidence or a common oral tradition rather than to Luke's dependence on the written text of Matthew. The fact that Luke records the commendation of those who "see" in a totally different context several chapters later rather than in Matthew's context (as the conclusion of this pericope) indicates that Luke knew "Q" -- the source of Matthew's saying --- instead of the gospel of Matthew itself.

The only question that the Two Source hypothesis does not answer directly is one that plagues all other source theories as well. Why would Mark create a problematic pericope whose logic contradicts the message of repentance and forgiveness that he himself ascribes to Jesus elsewhere? The simplest solution to this puzzle is to conclude that Mark did not create this pericope but simply transcribed a chreia from oral tradition.

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     analysis     source hypotheses     appendix 
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last revised 01 March 2023

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